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An event unlike any other

100 patient and family partners, front-line staff and leaders came together to address and combat stigma faced by people living with mental health and substance use challenges.
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​It's been said that small moments, strung together, make up a life. Recently, the moments of stigma people have faced in their lives coalesced into an event that was a springboard for change.

The event, “Breaking the Silence: A Community Gathering on Stigma in Mental Health and Substance Use," aimed to disrupt stigma and advance patient- and family-centered care for people with mental health and substance use challenges. It was hosted by the Patient Experience and Community Engagement team at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services (BCMHSUS).

“We could not have hoped for it to go any better," says Kathryn Proudfoot, former director, Patient Experience and Community Engagement, BCMHSUS, and current director, Patient Partnerships, PHSA. “Having those moments in time where you see everyone so deeply engaged – you could see from their commitment and passion that their spirits were lifted and encouraged by such a complex problem in our society."

Learning, sharing, collaborating

About 100 people attended from across PHSA and beyond, including patient and family partners, front-line staff, and leaders. At the heart of the gathering was storytelling and dialogue. By exploring each other’s journeys with mental health and substance use, without shame or blame, we can celebrate diversity and create change.​

“Stigma touches everyone," says Katie Mai, senior leader, Patient Experience and Community Engagement, BCMHSUS. “At the event, we broke out of our 'patient,' 'family' and 'staff' hats. For example, people felt safe to dive deeper and discuss their own lived experiences that led to them being a staff member. That's really the foundation for storytelling: How people find their voice, and to help those voices be heard so that others don't feel alone."

“This event reinforced that stigma is embedded into our social fabric; it is a system that we are all impacted by and need to collectively work on dismantling." – Katie Mai
The event included a screening of a mini-documentary series (watch the videos on stigma, standing in the gap, and overcoming and healing), panelist discussion featuring storytellers, breakout sessions facilitated by people with lived experience, and an interactive arts workshop.

Disrupting stigma for better care

Addressing and combating stigma faced by people living with mental health and substance use challenges is the goal of the UNITE project. Along with the mini-documentary series that will soon be expanded, this multi-year initiative involves facilitated dialogues with staff, clients and families, and journey mapping with clients to help foster an ongoing culture of excellence in patient experience.

Planning for a community event started three years ago, when the UNITE project got off the ground. As part of the planning, it was important for Kathryn, Katie and their team to celebrate the work of patient and family partners. Given feedback from attendees, this was achieved.

“The day was profoundly impactful for me," says Alberto Almeida, project manager, Crisis Line Enhancement Project. “From seeing how much attention and intentional effort was made to ensure that the voices of lived experience advisors and partners took centre stage, to successfully creating a space that felt safe enough to speak about sensitive topics and vulnerabilities without fear of judgment or stigma among such a large, diverse group of individuals – simply put, I was blown away."

“PHSA and BCMHSUS is wonderfully positioned to work alongside our clients to create a better mental health care system, and have their voices lead the way to a better future." – Alberto Almeida​
“It is so important to break the silence and disrupt the stigma around mental health and substance use," says Susan Good, vice president, People & Culture, PHSA, who moderated the event. “UNITE brings the stories and voices of this most vulnerable, courageous, strong and resilient people to the forefront. I am inspired and applaud this work."​

Thread of hope

If one thing was palpable in the Harbour Centre room overlooking the ocean and North Shore Mountains, it was hope.

“The sense of hope was really strong and woven throughout the day," says Kathryn Proudfoot. “For me, it re-grounded the work and refreshed the purpose in terms of onward and upward."​


As the event came to a close, attendees were invited to write a letter to themselves. In the letter, they reflected on the day and committed to actions to move this work forward. The Patient Experience and Community Engagement team have the letters, and will mail them to attendees in six months.

“I was humbled by the energy, wisdom and courage in this session," says Rebecca Hahn, executive director, Corporate and Clinical Support Services, BCMHSUS. “I would describe the work as ground-breaking, powerful, educational, and something we need to keep alive. As a mom in the audience asked, 'How do we get anti-stigma ideas in the drinking water?'"

“I think open and honest dialogue, free of judgement, can really normalize how mental health and substance use disorders affect all of us in some way." – Rebecca Hahn
Thank you to all those who are spreading this work across the health system. Learn more about UNITE and see additional photos from the event below.  ​


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